The Words of the Kagawa Family

Forgiveness and the Healing of Nations

Eileen R. Borris
March 8, 2011
President, Global Peace Initiatives

Presentation at the Parallel Event of the 55th Commission on the Status of Women Women and the World at a Turning Point

Mission of Nigeria to the UN, New York, USA, March 2, 2011

People question the role that forgiveness plays in resolving political conflict because forgiveness is ultimately a personal decision. And forgiveness is very much a personal choice, a decision one makes to see a situation differently, not through the lens of anger, guilt, or fear but out of understanding and compassion. However, it is also true that governments can lead their people into making that decision by setting up the conditions for forgiveness to take place.

Forgiveness is a complex process. It takes place inside human minds yet it operates on many levels. For forgiveness to have an impact on a political level, there needs to be political will. Forgiveness begins with the actions of leaders and the strengthening of structures which can teach and support the processes of forgiveness.

Societies can help provide an outer structure which supports the forces of forgiveness and which ultimately influences the way we think. This outer structure provides mechanisms where large groups of people can come together to talk about what is the meaning of forgiveness and what would that look like within specific societies. Social and educational institutions can also provide a structure where people can come together to talk about how one can resolve conflict and learn about forgiveness.

Unfortunately in modern history so many countries have seen conflict, civil war, and genocide leading to mass killing and suffering. Usually people who survive these circumstances have to rely on themselves amidst a great deal of loss, anger, fear, and extreme hardship. In spite of unthinkable tragedies many people do want to move forward with their lives, some wanting to forgive so they can have peace of mind and let go of the past while others are waiting for their moment to seek revenge.

In either case people need to heal and be given the understanding as to why groups of people find themselves in sometimes horrific circumstances, how to prevent these situations from happening again, and how to help those who remain, living side by side in some cases with the perpetrators of crime.

Healing Centers which provide healing as well as training programs can be very important catalysts for the healing of nations. These programs focus on the healing of wounds of conflict, preventing mass murder from happening again, and providing the understanding of all aspects of forgiveness.

The process of how individuals learn how to forgive and how groups learn how to forgive are very similar, yet we can predispose a society in supporting forces of forgiveness through a greater understanding of how we can activate a forgiveness instinct within each of us.

There are three psychological conditions that activate feelings of forgiveness between people and groups of people and which can serve as powerful healing mechanisms. (Michael McCullough: Beyond Revenge) The first is the concept of care worthiness. People forgive transgressors who they view as appropriate recipients for kindness and compassion. The question is how do you begin to care for someone who might be a stranger to you and has done unimaginable harm? We need to recognize each others pain and feel empathy.

If you feel "empathic," "sympathic," or concerned for a transgressor, it is difficult to maintain a vengeful attitude. Instead, forgiveness often emerges. Empathy seems to promote forgiveness in relationships between all sorts of people including with groups who are in conflict with one another. When you feel empathic toward someone your willingness to retaliate goes way down.

Expected value is the second psychological foundation for forgiveness. People forgive to the extent that they perceive their relationship with the transgressor to be a valuable one. The experiences of the Acholi people of Northern Uganda illustrates the importance of expected value. For two decades, rebels calling themselves the "Lord's Resistance Army" have fought to overturn the Ugandan government. To build support for their cause they have terrorized civilians. Thousands of pre-teen girls have been stolen from their villages and given as wives to rebel commanders. Thousands of other children have been taken captive, brainwashed, and turned into the next generation of child soldiers, trained to attack and kill their own people. Villagers who have resisted the rebels have had their lips, noses, ears, hands, or breast cut off to intimidate others into meeting the rebels' demands.

Fatigue set in among the Acholi, many of whom have been displaced from their homes for years, so they adopted an unorthodox strategy for peacemaking: welcoming the rebel soldiers back into their midst with offers of forgiveness. Since the year 2000, popular radio programs have promised the rebels amnesty if they would simply lay down their arms and return to their communities. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has resisted requests that it drop its indictments against the LRA's leaders, but this hasn't deterred the Acholi. The Ugandan government has officially offered amnesty to the rebels.

When rebels return home, sometimes in groups as large as 800, they participate in a traditional forgiveness ritual in which they stick a bare foot into a raw egg -- symbol of innocence and new life. Next, they step over the long handle of a farming tool to symbolize their intention to return to a productive life in the community. As a final element in the ritual, they receive a figurative cleansing by brushing against the leaves of a pobo tree, "whose slippery bark catches dirty things." After the ritual, the repentant rebels must sit down with the community leaders and formulate plans for confessing their sins and compensating the families they they've harmed -- often paying with livestock.

"What I am after is peace," said one of the rebels' victims, whose nose, ears, and upper lip had been cut off more than a decade earlier. "If the people who did this to me and so many others are sorry for what they did, we can take them back." This is not hard to understand why, especially when they repent and attempt to compensate their victims. The LRA turned children against their own villages and their own tribes, but those children continue to have value to their families and their communities, even though they were brainwashed and intimidated into dong horrible things.

Post-conflict anxiety seems to be one of the forces that motivate people to restore valuable relationships. Concerns about losing a valuable relationship creates anxiety, and that anxiety motivates us to find ways to patch things up and restore the relationships.

The problem is that when someone harms you, the harm itself drains some of the expected value form the relationship. The Acholi children who were spirited away to join the Lord's Resistance Army did horrific things to their own people, so they are now regarded as potential agents of harm.

Therefore, despite the returning soldiers' implicit value to their parents, siblings, and former neighbors, the Acholi have to reevaluate their relationship with them -- quite literally, they have to reassess the value they can expect to derive from the returnees in the future. It is not safe to simply assume that their future interactions will be rewarding.

But transgressions don't necessarily drain all of the expected value out of a relationship. Even if you harm me, I might continue to assign our relationship a high expected value if it was really valuable to me up until now, and this will dispose me to forgive you. This bodes well for humans' ability to forgive people who had high expected value prior to the transgression. But what if your relationship with a transgressor had low expected valued prior to the transgression?

In such instances, endowing the relationship with some expected value after the fact is going to be more of an uphill climb. This is why victims around the world tend to respond positively to compensation as an overture to forgiveness. Paying someone back for the harm you caused signals to the victim that your relationship has the potential to become rewarding once again.

What is interesting about this story is that it not only demonstrates the psychological conditions which activate forgiveness within all of us. It also demonstrates the use of signals. We can create the social conditions that will conjure up the psychological ingredients for forgiveness even in situations in which those ingredients are in short supply.

We do this through signals -- a repertoire of behavioral, expressive, and verbal signals for ending cycles of aggression and retaliation, fostering cooperation after conflict, and ultimately ushering in forgiveness and reconciliation.

Three of the most common, practical, and most effective of the signals are apologies, self-abasing displays and gestures, and compensation. In processes such as truth and reconciliation commissions it is much easier for victims to forgive their perpetrators when there is an apology in which the victim knows the perpetrator feels shame. Compensation is also a tried and true mechanism for fostering forgiveness. Compensation undoes some of the damage that the transgression created and it forces the transgressor to experience some the pain.

The acceptance of "blood money" is a common alternative to killing a murderer or one of his kin in retaliation for homicide, and compensation and gift giving are common elements of reconciliation and forgiveness rituals in many cultures. The leaders or legitimate representatives of groups, communities, factions, and nations can offer apologies on behalf of their people to groups with whom they have been in conflict.

They can also offer gestures that express remorse and empathy for the suffering of another group, and they can provide compensation -- just as individuals can. When they engage in such gestures, it is often to great effect to groups of people who they have harmed.

The third psychological condition for forgiveness is perceived safety, which simply is a matter of trust. People are more inclined to forgive a transgressor whom they perceive to be unwilling or unable to harm again in the future. There are ways to evaluate safety. First we try to understand why something happened in the first place. Depending on whether it was unintentional or unavoidable or whether it was malicious will determine feelings of safety afterwards. Another factor is the offender's remorse and concern for the victim after the offense.

The person who is personally pained by his/her actions demonstrates sympathy with the victim's suffering and a desire to uphold society's moral standards. People are also interested in whether a transgressor possesses the desire to harm them again as well as the ability to harm them again. In many cultures, reconciliation rituals involve the surrender of weapons -- perhaps because of the powerful symbolism associated with giving up one's power to harm.

Of these three conditions perhaps the most difficult aspect of forgiveness impacting the healing of a nation is to be able to develop empathy of the enemy, specifically because we want to dehumanize the enemy. In order to repair relationships we have to change our perceptions and recognize the humanness in others. This necessitates a change in our own thinking. It also necessitates a commitment to renew relationships.

I would like to end by sharing with you a definition of forgiveness within a political context. Forgiveness within the context of politics includes "A call for a collective turning from the past that neither overlooks justice nor reduces it justice to revenge, that insists on the humanity of enemies even in their commission of dehumanizing deeds, and that values the justice that restores political community above the justice that destroys it." (Donald Shriver Jr.: An Ethic for Enemies) It is important to understand that forgiveness does not require the abandonment of punishment; it requires the abandonment of revenge. Pope John Paul II reminds us that because we are human our actions are colored by our fears and perceptions. He cautions us by saying, "because human justice is always fragile and imperfect, subject to the limitations and egoism of individuals and groups, it must include and be complete by the forgiveness which heals and rebuilds troubled human relations from their foundations."

In an address to a joint session of the United States Congress in 1990, former President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel said that "without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, a more humane society will not emerge." Einstein also warned that without a fundamental change in our thinking, humanity will drift towards catastrophe.

You may be asking yourself what kind of radical change needs to happen in our thinking to stop the cycles of anger, hatred, and fear that fuel so many conflicts witnessed in the world today. It is the kind of thinking which helps us look beyond outward behavior and recognize that the true peacemakers are those who are not afraid to look within, to change the way we think, and heal the pain of their heart. Forgiveness supports this kind of healing transformation.

We are on the threshold of a new stage of development, and if we are willing to do the hard work of forgiveness and recognize what a powerful healing agent forgiveness is, then it is possible to create a more loving and peaceful world. The results of this will be dramatic. With all the violence which has taken center stage on the world arena, we can take either the path of self-destruction or a path leading to a radical transformation. Forgiveness is pivotal in creating the kind of transformation which will not only bring peace in our lives but peace in our world.

NOTE: Dr. Borris is a clinical and political psychologist working in the field of international conflict resolution and reconciliation especially with emerging democracies. She is the Director of Training for the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy and designs and implements programs in international conflict resolution, negotiation, cross-cultural communication, dialogue, and peace-building including processes of forgiveness, trauma healing, and reconciliation. Her focus is on bringing ethnic, religious, and regional groups in conflict together within the framework of multi-track diplomacy and incorporating forgiveness and reconciliation processes within the broader context of conflict resolution. Dr. Borris has traveled to areas of conflict including Liberia, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Lebanon, Israel, Indonesia, and the Republic of Georgia. She has worked for USAID and UNIFEM. For further information please contact: 

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